All appearances would suggest that Turkmenistan president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow continues to refuse to allow trifling humanitarian issues within the former Soviet republic of Central Asia to distract his focus from the real issues at hand.

Kismet has decreed that Turkmenistan sits atop untold Hydrocarbon wealth which many of its ‘stan’ neighbours can only dream. And yet, without the countless cubic metres of natural gas beneath the Caspian Sea Turkmenistan would be another Yemen, desolate and impoverished with few means by which to support its own people.

There is therefore little question that the money is or at least has been there to build a modern, progressive country on paper far more fortunate than many of the other constituent parts of the former Soviet Union, and realign the societal inequalities as much bywords as a by-product of secession from Moscow almost 30 years ago.

Where there once was a lot of money, there is now far less; perhaps virtually none. Succeeding Turkmenistan’s first president Saparmurat Niyazov, a man whose whims, excesses, and cult of personality have since only proved to be a dry run for what was to follow, Berdymukhamedow, a former dentist, has cranked up levels of narcissism, delusions of grandeur and self-proclaimed wisdom all with a streak of malevolence behind carefully choreographed smiles, of which Niyazov would’ve been proud, or perhaps jealous.

Viewed as the country’s protector and sagacious guide Berdymukhamedow has translated his self-deification into executing many incongruous architectural fantasies to apparently showcase his acumen, and that Turkmenistan has the ingenuity and imagination to be taken seriously on the world stage.

For someone who has declared the country’s stance as being officially neutral, in effect pursuing a course of Isolationism, an obsession with pushing a certain image of futuristic edifices and ambitious but ultimately White Elephant projects endorsed by Western celebrities including Jack Nicklaus, generates more than a whiff of hypocrisy. Quite simply, the state of Turkmenistan today reflects a man out of control but at the same time untouchable, with all foes vanquished and imprisoned, or worse, and those closest to him kept quiet, and happy, with lucrative kickbacks from the inflated budgets of capital projects. The financial resources earned by Turkmenistan are therefore not simply seen as the country’s but the president’s too, allowing Berdymukhamedow to blow billions on what he believes to be for the good of the nation.

An autocratic mindset does not though countenance the real needs of a nation or its people. Where is the bling, glitz, and glamour in ensuring citizens are adequately fed, paid, and housed when the money could instead be channelled towards schemes that are more Potemkin-esque in their delivery, being all for show but with little behind the shiny but often flimsy veneer. All in the name of ‘because he can’ rather than having any genuine basis for conception and realisation, money continues to sluice away into marbling a deserted Ashgabat and feeding the president’s love of a good statue. How such things can be justified in the mind of a dictator we will never know, but therein lies the rub: if you aren’t a despot you just wouldn’t understand, darling.

Two pertinent examples of the vast distance between Berdymukhamedow’s priorities and the reality within Turkmenistan have recently reared their rather ugly, but familiar heads. Pictures of Ashgabat residents rifling through garbage skips once more highlights the plight of many ordinary citizens living under increasingly harsh economic conditions contrast sharply with the president’s desire to build a near-1,000 feet high obelisk to mark 30 years of independence from Soviet rule. Not only is the president ‘going large’ but is in effect seeking to justify yet another of his pointless schemes by associating its construction with the country becoming free to determine its own destiny. It can be vigorously argued that secession was the worst thing that could have happened to Turkmenistan when one considers the type of men who have taken it forth into the 21st century. Far from being a cause for celebration, the country’s citizens will rue the day Ashgabat freed itself from Moscow’s rule, when life was far from perfect but at least guaranteed greater equality, reliable employment and access to basic foodstuffs.

As with Niyazov it is therefore the president, family, and the shady cast of hangers on who have benefited most from independence, exploiting the power vacuum of uncertainty that swept through the capitals of the former Soviet bloc to varying degrees of catastrophe, corruption, and the sale on the cheap of the state’s family silver. To build an obelisk that rivals Paris’ Eiffel Tower in height only serves to cock a snook at critics inside and beyond the country’s borders, and once more reassert the president’s omnipotence.

The obvious inequities within Turkmenistan have no truck with the president, who sees his everyday countrymen as those to look down upon, and to be sweated as assets until their usefulness has been exhausted. For someone who takes the view that his boundless wisdom can only be displayed through the creation of building projects that the limited minds of those without his perspicuity cannot fathom, criticism will therefore be of little consequence.

For those suffering hardship that no citizen in the 21st century should have to endure, an exercise of constructing yet another expensive vanity project is another stab at the hope that one day the Berdymukhamedow presidency will be usurped, when in fact its powerbase is set to be consolidated by son and heir apparent Serdar, a mean and joyless individual whose likely succession will only heap greater misery and inequality onto an oppressed, and shrinking population.

While the world likes to focus on the horrors that leak out from and at the hands of North Korea’s brutal Mount Paektu bloodline, there is still an attitude of approaching the seemingly eccentric but otherwise harmless Berdymukhamedow as a comedic figure of fun, someone lending an air of levity to the otherwise staid world of modern day politics. Who wouldn’t want a president running their country with a penchant for driving fast cars, unerringly shooting every target at which he aims, and composing electro-synth tracks with his grandson? This is the image of a benevolent dictator that the president wishes for the world to see – despite all the while pursuing a line of Isolationism that politely requests outsiders to keep out of his and the country’s business – and time after time the world’s media fall for the shtick.

Only be being rid of the regime and its potential familial successors does Turkmenistan have any chance of surviving as a viable nation for its dwindling population. The more time passes with the status quo in situ the sooner the country will become a private playground for the ruling elite and its coterie, while those citizens unable to leave will become further marginalised and increasingly destitute. What pressure can be brought to bear is limited by the country’s position of neutrality, and a lack of footage that escapes the government censors other than that of Berdymukhamedow playing a Putinesque Alpha Male strongman.

With a dangerous and potentially porous border with Afghanistan threatening to cause headaches in Ashgabat and beyond, the president is more likely to be shored up by foreign powers to prevent a Taliban-inspired invasion into Central Asia, where fertile ground for recruiting the next generation of Jihadists is commonplace and established. The reality is that there will never be enough desire to dethrone Berdymukhamedow, or any regime within a Hydrocarbon-rich country, in particular when destabilization could let a reconsolidated Taliban through an unguarded back door.

For Turkmenistan’s citizens effectively sacrificed by the international community supposedly for the greater good, the future looks exceptionally bleak.

Source material and further information:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: